The Academy Awards only started honoring achievements in animated filmmaking in 2001, and since then, not surprisingly, more than half of the Best Animated Feature Oscars have gone to the groundbreaking Pixar studio, which has taken the award 11 out of 15 times one of its films has been nominated.
At this year’s Oscars, which took place Sunday, there were two Pixar nominees in that category alone: “Onward” and the eventual, predictable winner, “Soul,” a well-received, high-concept story about a jazz musician whose untimely death sends his spirit on an metaphysical quest to figure out What It All Means.
“Soul,” like all Pixar products, is a superbly crafted film entirely composed of computer-generated imagery, and it’s a fine showcase for a form that has evolved into the most profitable style of mainstream animated storytelling.
All but three winners in the short history of this category have been wholly computer-animated works. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the 2018 honoree, combined CGI with comic-book-style illustrations. “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005) was clay-animated in stop motion. “Spirited Away,” the 2001 Hayao Miyazaki anime masterpiece, is the lone purely hand-drawn film to win in this category.
The 2021 Oscars delivered several obvious disappointments: no performances or clips from nominees, the late Chadwick Boseman’s anticlimactic loss in the Best Actor category, plus the general sense that the ceremony was happening in the banquet room of a suburban Holiday Inn.
A less buzzed-about letdown was the missed opportunity, in the animation category, to recognize a work of rare beauty: the fantasy film “Wolfwalkers,” a nominee that had nowhere near the name recognition of “Soul,” but is a substantially richer movie.
“Wolfwakers,” created by Irish filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, is fully hand-drawn. Rooted in Irish and Celtic folklore and set around the time of the 17th-century English Civil War, it happily ignores the realist capabilities technology has introduced to the format, favoring the magical suggestiveness of lines and colors.
“Wolfwalkers,” which is streaming on Apple TV+, adheres to the fairy tale rulebook. Its hero is a headstrong young girl, Robyn Goodfellowe (voice of Honor Kneafsey), who accompanies her widowed father, Bill (Sean Bean) to a remote Irish settlement. He’s been dispatched by the Lord Protector of England’s occupying forces to clear the area of wolves so the empire can plunder the surrounding forests.
Robyn chafes against the superstitions and sexism of the social norms she’s expected to follow and retreats to the enchanted (it turns out) woods. There, she meets a feral-seeming red-headed girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who has a powerful connection to the wolves in the forest: at night, we learn, she becomes a wolf and leads the pack. Robyn learns this power is accessible to her as well, but it comes with a price.
As Robyn becomes entwined in Mebh’s world, “Wolfwalkers” hits several familiar beats from animation and fantasy: a basis in mythology, a dreamlike world just out of view, a rebellious young person on a heroic journey, at least one dead parent, humanity’s threat to the natural world, cross-cultural understanding and so on.
While much of the story is boilerplate (aside from an unapologetic queer subtext that I didn’t recognize from many Disney movies), the visual palette offers a refreshing departure from trends.
Human and animal features are exaggerated to communicate character traits, often looking like storyboard sketches come to life, having traveled the shortest possible distance from their creators’ imaginations to the screen. Forest spaces are dark, ominous and impressionistic, their mysteries heightened by the evocative two-dimensionality. There is fluid movement on every inch of the screen.
As such, “Wolfwalkers” does a better job paying homage to the hand-drawn classics of Disney’s original heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s — think “Sleeping Beauty,” “Bambi” or “Pinnochio” — than anything from Pixar, or even the movies from Disney’s 1990s revival, which were often preoccupied with transcending the constraints of animation.
“Wolfwalkers” celebrates those limitations and leans into them. It wants you to know it’s hand-drawn, to notice its imperfections, its strangeness, its human-ness. It could just be a new classic.